ESR 10 Blog February 2022: Anna Fech

Last month I had the opportunity to present my first results after a year of research in the colloquium. Therefore, in this article, I would like to share an excerpt from my talk.

When I was 4 or 5 years old, I remember sitting in an antechamber, staring at a large samovar that shimmered gold in the shining sun. In the other room, my grandmother and other people from the small village of Koksu had gathered. Koksu was a sovkhoz in Kazakhstan near the Chinese border. It was an illegal gathering for a protestant church service, reflected in the tense mood. Practicing religion was forbidden in the Soviet Union. Still, people found ways and opportunities to keep doing the things that were close to their hearts and that gave them security and stability through life’s turbulences.

In the cultural sphere, poets and artists invented ways to continue to communicate with each other, to share their ideas, beyond censorship and propaganda. One widespread option were the so-called semizdats, which were self-published magazines or books. An early example of these was the literary journal Boomerang initiated by Russian poet Vladimir Osipov in the 1960s.[1] It contained essays on art and literary contributions.

I would like to pick up the metaphor of the boomerang, because even if artists use the internet to pursue their intentions, the digital remains embedded in the analogue. Their contributions have an impact in the here and now, they connect and call for the participation of people in the so-called real space. As with other forms of communication, however, there is also a risk of error. Everyone knows that throwing a boomerang requires a certain technique, certain knowledge is needed so that the boomerang returns. It’s the same in the digital space. Not every contribution achieves its goal, a lot gets lost in the vastness of the code world, remains unnoticed or is misunderstood. In the current age of the post-digital, many artists stick to discussing the techniques or what can go wrong instead of throwing the boomerang. Like human communication, the boomerang is a mysterious phenomenon. It was originally thought to be a hunting instrument. However, scientists have discovered many other functions of this device. It served as a musical instrument, a weapon in battle, a sports or gaming device. Depending on the shape and material composition, the boomerangs’ flight characteristics vary greatly, while some have a large trajectory, others come back very quickly. Its origin is also disputed. Commonly known as an Aboriginal hunting instrument, very early examples have been found in entirely different parts of the world. The oldest known one was discovered in Poland and was estimated to be 23,000 years old.[2] This device was apparently used worldwide. Scientists can make fragmentary discoveries to give us a broad idea, but ultimately it remains a mystery. This is how I see my research in relation to socially engaged art and digital network culture in post-socialist Europe. My subject has a thematic and geographical scope, yet it is more ramified than I can comprehend and plays with terminology that has been used, abused and then redefined. Ultimately, where the East is located remains a mystery, as does the question of what socially engaged art actually is and whether a digital network culture even exists. I would like to try to throw my academic boomerang, what will be the outcome and whether it will come back remains open.

In order to throw the boomerang, not only is the knowledge of the technique needed, but the standing ground is also important. When standing on swampy ground, the feet sink into it and the throw will be different than from a stone floor. While selecting the countries in the state of emergency during the corona crisis, I had to consider the travel conditions, which also had an impact on my research. Traveling within the EU was much easier than outside, with better accessibility by land than by air. So it happened that I looked at the countries of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Croatia. I would like to add that I do not intend to do country studies, but scrutinize the network structures and the connection that will go beyond the countries mentioned. Because every space has its specific cultural and historical traces that create a very diverse and complex landscape. Therefore, my study provides a fragmentary insight into what happens at a certain point in time under certain circumstances, which are constantly changing. The idea is to think about the lines of communication between artists rather than confining the discussion to national borders.

However, this so-called new normal of the post-pandemic situation also revealed an interesting aspect. In my informal conversations, the curators and artists mentioned a kind of déja vu with the communist structures. Slavoj Žižek describes in his publication Pandemic! Covid-19 shakes the world the metaphor of a perfect storm that sweeps across Europe. The pandemic storm has pulled up European borders again, and the terms ‘monitoring’ and ‘punishment’ have become more important. “(…)it turns out that China is well equipped to deal with the catastrophic pandemic thanks to its forward digital surveillance of society. Does that mean that China is at least in some respects our future?”[3]

[1] Online Archive University of Toronto: Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat. (Accessed 11.02.2022)

[2] Pawel Valde-Nowak, Adam Nadachowski, Mieczyslaw Wolsan: Upper Paleolithic boomerang made of a mammoth tusk in south Poland. Nature 329, 1987, S. 436-438.

[3] Slavoj Žižek, Pandemie! Covid-19 erschüttert die Welt. Passagen Verlag Wien 2021 (Kindle Edition), p. 44.

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